Why Ronald Araújo can be Uruguay’s difference-maker vs. Brazil

There is an old saying in South American football that trying to get the balance of a team right is like having a small blanket on a cold night — cover your neck and your feet freeze, cover your feet and your neck gets cold.

This has never been a dilemma for Uruguay coach Marcelo Bielsa. There is little doubt about what he wants to do — pull the blanket as high as it can go. His front-forward football accepts a risk. He will try to smother the opposition, but if they can play their way out, then a Bielsa team offers plenty of space for a counter-attack.

It is hardly surprising, then, that in Bielsa’s spell in charge of Chile, Brazil happened to be the kryptonite to his Superman. That Chile team captured the hearts of neutrals with their swashbuckling approach. But every time they came up against Brazil, with their devastating counter-attack, Chile were picked off on the break.

Might it be different now, as Bielsa’s Uruguay prepare for a Las Vegas clash with Brazil in the quarterfinals of the Copa América?

There is a striking similarity between the current Uruguay side and the Chile team that Bielsa took over in 2007: youth. Back then, Chile had just unearthed a wonderful generation, third place in that year’s U-20 World Cup. Some of those players — Alexis Sánchez, Mauricio Isla — are still important names in the Chile national team. Back then they were all young and hungry, full of energy and eager to learn, ready to be moulded by Bielsa’s teachings.

There is something similar going on with Uruguay, who have returned to football’s top table in recent times as a consequence of excellent youth work. Historical names such as Diego Godín, Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani and so many others were all products of work done in the youth ranks, especially at under-20 level. But after the Qatar World Cup they have gone — Suarez remains as a substitute, perhaps more important now for his presence around the camp than for what he does on the field.

There are plenty of more recent graduates of the Uruguay U20 project that Bielsa can choose from. And it is clear why the former Leeds manager was tempted to take the job. Quite apart from any cultural affinity that the Argentine feels with Uruguay, the spine of a new, dynamic, Bielsa-style team was all there for him. He has Darwin Núñez as a dynamic, aggressive centre-forward — seven goals in Uruguay’s last seven competitive internationals.

He has quick, direct wingers, a type of player so important to the Bielsa game plan. He has a midfield full of lung power and quality, built around Real Madrid‘s extraordinary Federico Valverde, with Manuel Ugarte as the protector and busy little Nico De La Cruz, a mobile link-man with the strikers.

Then he has Ronald Araújo in defense. Injury meant that the Barcelona defender was unable to take part in the 2022 World Cup. His absence was a huge blow. His presence now — in Bielsa’s front loaded XI — is even more important. Against Panama — when Araújo was withdrawn at half-time — and Bolívia this may not have been apparent. These were matches that mostly took place in the other half of the field, with Uruguay establishing a giddying frenetic stranglehold right from the start.

True, in both matches Uruguay started the second half badly. As the intensity drops — inevitable in the heat — the team seem unable to slow down the pace of the game, and their sloppiness in giving the ball away has caused Bielsa to howl like a wolf on the touchline. But they were never seriously threatened — until the game against United States.

This was different. Fighting for their survival in the tournament, it was the North Americans who charged forwards in a spirited attempt to impose themselves on the game. And they ran into Araújo. The strapping defender was a force of nature, fierce in the one against one duels and rapid across the ground to cover his colleagues. If the USA were mostly unable to translate their attacking intentions into clear chances, then this had plenty to do with Araújo.

Now the defender becomes a key man in the duel with Brazil.

True, the game takes place in a covered, air-conditioned stadium, but players are carrying the effects of other games and training sessions in extreme heat. The Bielsa style of play requires relentless running, boundless energy. The aim is to smother the attack of the opposition at source. If the high press fails and Brazil can launch themselves from deep, then even in the absence of the suspended Vinícius Júnior the danger is obvious.

Araújo, the son of a Brazilian mother who grew up in the border town of Rivera, will have a huge responsibility to hold the defensive line against the advancing hordes.

In his time with Chile, Bielsa could not count on a player with the virtues of Araújo. On Saturday the center-back could make all the difference. Bielsa can roll the dice in Vegas, pulling the blanket way up high, confident that Araújo can keep the feet of his team well covered.